Just a neighborhood movie theater

The Grand Theater is one of the few Milwaukee neighborhood movie houses still standing. Film showings ended 40 years ago and the most recent tenant, a church, has moved on leaving the building vacant. Carl Swanson photo

The Grand Theater is one of the few Milwaukee neighborhood movie houses still standing. Film showings ended 40 years ago and the most recent tenant, a church, has moved on leaving the building vacant. Carl Swanson photo

Empty, deteriorating, and facing an uncertain future, the Grand Theater, 2917 N. Holton St., reflects the highs and lows of Milwaukee’s movie theater history.

The 790-seat Grand was one of the city’s earliest movie houses, opening its doors in 1911 – just six years after Milwaukee’s first purpose-built theater. By 1930, the Grand was one of 89 theaters in town. By the mid-1950s, only a dozen remained and the Grand was one of them. It continued in operation into the 1970s.

The actual screen is gone, but much of the old theater's character remains. Sean Olster photo

The actual screen is gone, but much of the old theater’s character remains. Sean Oster photo

For much of its history the Grand was a humble “nab” – movie jargon for “neighborhood” – theater. It was the place down the street where you went as a kid with 10 cents to spend and an abiding interest in the latest Western.

One regular attendee from those days said you got good value for your dime. Besides the feature presentation, moviegoers saw the current installment of an ongoing serial. These short, episodic films had cliffhanger endings to encourage regular attendance.

Built in the silent movie era, the Grand likely used a piano to provide accompanying music for the films. This shattered piano was pushed behind the screen and forgotten. Dan Soiney photo

Built in the silent movie era, the Grand likely used a piano to provide accompanying music for the silent films. This shattered piano was found in an alcove next to the screen. Dan Soiney photo

Andrew and Evelyn Gutenberg built the Grand when movies were silent. Larger theaters often had elaborate organs to provide accompaniment for the films. A neighborhood place like the Grand likely made do with a piano. Indeed, the skeleton of an ancient piano is still on the premises, tucked away beside the former screen.

The Gutenbergs lived two blocks north of their business at 2923 N. Holton St., where they raised two children. The movie business being mostly an evening and weekend operation, Andrew Gutenberg also operated a machine shop behind their home.

Lobby ceiling. Sean Oster photo

Lobby ceiling. Sean Oster photo

In 1943, while vacationing in Northern Wisconsin, Andrew Gutenberg died following an attack of appendicitis. He was 49. Evelyn took over as owner and manager of the theater.

Evelyn Gutenberg appeared in a 1958 advertisement for First Wisconsin Bank, where she said, “My husband built the Grand, here on Holton Street, the year we were married. Since then, it has always been in the family and pretty much what it is today … a modest, neighborhood movie house and a modestly successful business, just like so many others up and down the street.”

Although the Grand, a late-run discount house, kept going longer than most, times were changing. Around 1970, Matt Millen, a 30-year-old tax attorney turned film enthusiast, took over. He renamed it the Magik Grand Cine.

The theater showed a mix of foreign films and movie classics. It even hosted experimental live theater. One group, the DMZ Mime Troupe, staged a “Theaterencounter Mind Melt Group Grok” there.

In the mid-1970s, the movie house was purchased by the Church of the Philippians, which owned it until 2007 at which time it was sold to Haven of Hope Ministries. It retains most of its original decor, which can best be described as “American movie theater Mediterranean-ish.”

Old theaters (the Grand was built in 1911) didn't devote much space to concessions. The lobby was modest. Tickets were purchased in a glass booth located outside and between the entry doors at right. Dan Soiney photo

The lobby is is richly detailed but modest in size. You purchased tickets from an attendant in a glass booth on the sidewalk outside and between the entry doors at left. Dan Soiney photo

In spring 2015, the church moved on and the building was offered for sale. This piece of Milwaukee cinema history was listed for $65,000 – a pretty good price for a 7,500-square-foot historic building with a 21-foot-tall ceiling. But happy endings are more common in Hollywood than on Holton Street. The odds are against this building’s long-term survival.

For 60 years this was the neighborhood movie theater. That’s worth celebrating, whatever the future holds.

Special thanks to Dan Soiney and Sean Oster for the interior photos.

Carl_sig

Photo by Dan Soiney

Photo by Dan Soiney

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7 comments

  1. Fantastic post! I emailed back and forth a few times with Matt Millen a few years back. Nice fellow. Although, I remember him saying it was not his group that ran adult films. An out-of-town operator had it very briefly after him and ran the x-rated stuff.

    That image of piano is downright haunting.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the clarification Matthew! I don’t want to do Mr. Millen an injustice, so I’ve reworded the post to remove the reference to adult films. If I get more information on the very last operator, I can always plug that in.

      Like

  2. “Empty, deteriorating, and facing an uncertain future…” That applied to me once, but thankfully that wasn’t the end of the story – John 3:16

    The Grand was my nearest theatre, and I attended with other neighborhood kids just about every Friday night. Admission was $0.15 until I turned 12. Thursday, Friday and Saturday the programming was typically Grade-B horror and sci-fi, with occasional westerns or sword & sandal epics. Sunday thru Thursday they showed more family features. Thanks for the look inside!

    There was another even smaller movie house (400 seats?) – The Peerless – about 2 blocks away on the north side of Center Street between Holton Street and the alley. It closed in the late 50s, and the site became the parking lot for Rupena’s “supermarket”.

    Liked by 2 people

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